Friday, July 30, 2010

Holly and the Italians - The Right to Be Italian (Virgin/Epic, 1981)

Sometime in early 1998, I suddenly decided I was going to start collecting power pop albums from the 1979-81 skinny tie era. Pop-punk, my genre of choice, was starting to get stale. Power pop was making a comeback. I felt compelled to go back to the source. And for a year or two, I took a really good run at this quest. I visited record stores specializing in old, unwanted vinyl. I went to record collector expos. I posted my wish lists in my zines in hopes that readers could hook me up. I ended up acquiring dozens of LPs - some “classic” (Paul Collins Beat, 20/20), some cultural remnants of my boyhood (Vapors, The Knack), some ultra-obscure (The Cichlids, The Now), and some that were for power pop completists only (The Proof, Pearl Harbour and the Explosions). Never one to collect things just for the sake of collecting them, I actually listened to all those records. Was I wasting my time? I think not. Granted, I doubt I’ll ever again in my life feel the need to sit through Yachts’ Without Radar or Bram Tchaikovsky’s Strange Man, Changed Man. But I enjoyed them well enough. And at three bucks a pop, it’s not like those records set me back a fortune. Better yet, some of the titles I bought ended up becoming records I loved – all-time favorites of mine, in fact. Near the top of that list is the debut album by Holly and the Italians.

Listening to The Right to Be Italian, I find myself marveling that it was actually put out by a major label in 1981. The majority of commercial power pop in 1981 was really just new wave pretending to be power pop. With The Right to Be Italian, it’s the other way around. It was punky power pop marketed to the new wave crowd, and as such it was not characterized by thin early ‘80s production, contrived quirkiness, or an over-reliance on synthesizers. In the lexicon of today, you’d probably call it “pop-punk” – and I mean that in the nicest way. While nearly every other big name record producer of the day was a corporate hack entrusted by his bosses to cut the balls off a band’s music, Richard Gottehrer knew how to make great rock n’ roll records. He’d already done ace work on the debut albums by Blondie and The Go-Go’s, and as the architect of ‘60s classics “I Want Candy” and “My Boyfriend’s Back”, he was clearly no faddist. Gottehrer’s old school approach, a perfect fit for Holly and the Italians, gives The Right to Be Italian a timeless feel. It’s just a great, loud rock n’ roll album with crunchy guitars, hard-hitting drums, and a clean, crisp sound. It could have been released in 1965 or 2001 and sounded just as fresh and fun as it did in ’81. Perhaps it could have benefited from a higher “rockers to ballads” ratio. But all in all, the LP is bona fide awesomeness.

Singer/guitarist Holly Beth Vincent’s shtick doesn’t seem so revolutionary today – combining the girly appeal of the ‘60s teen queen with the snotty pop-punk ‘tude of The Ramones. But in the early ‘80s, there weren’t a whole lot of precedents for that type of thing. Along with Nikki and the Corvettes and the aforementioned Go-Go’s, Holly and the Italians form a holy trinity of seminal bands in the girl-fronted power pop (g.f.p.p.) genre. While not as consistent as Nikki and the Corvettes’ debut, or as well-known as the Go-Go’s’ first, The Right to Be Italian is in the same class as both. And if there’s one truly ultimate g.f.p.p. single, it’s “Tell That Girl To Shut Up”, The Right To Be Italian’s best tune. Whether you pay one, ten, twenty, or forty bucks for the album, this track alone justifies the purchase. With its punchy guitars, bristling bad-girl swagger, and unforgettable sing-along chorus, it hooks you from the first note and holds up to a thousand spins. Bands like The Donnas, Bobbyteens, Eyeliners, Riff Randells, Holograms, and Baby Shakes, so successful in the ’90s and 2000s, were all spiritually descended from this number. Nearly as good is album opener “I Wanna Go Home”, an anthemic rocker that rates as my all-time favorite song about America not sung by Neil Diamond. Dirty Sheets’ fearless CEO likens “Youth Coup” to a female-fronted Dictators, and I cannot disagree. “Do You Say Love” channels post-adolescent heartbreak so powerfully that it ought to have played over the closing credits of a top-tier early ‘80s teen movie. And the ballads – even if there are too many of them – are pretty freaking excellent.

Even with its big-name producer and big-name musicians (David Letterman sidekick Paul Schaffer and his bandmate Anton Fig were session players on the record), The Right to Be Italian features only one true star – Holly Beth Vincent. She was the total package, combining a flair for perfect pop songwriting with a great voice and a cool kind of sex appeal. She should have become a force in pop music – but for whatever reason she did not. She would go on to make more serious, “mature” records – which were perfectly fine but lacked the youthful energy and buzzsaw catchiness of The Right to Be Italian. We can say it’s a shame that there was no true “sequel” to The Right to Be Italian, but if there had been one it probably would have been a disappointment. Although in no way dated, this is an album that evokes the feel of the early 1980s – youthful optimism, an innocent type of rebellion, heart-on-sleeve teenage romanticism. It was a lighting-in-a-bottle moment in music, and Vincent would have been a fool to try and re-create it in later years without her original band. When you start naming the truly classic power pop LPs, the Plimsouls, Beat, and 20/20 may come to mind first. But The Right to Be Italian is right on the heels of them all – not just one of the greatest specimens of the genre but also one of the most enduring mainstream rock albums of the entire early ‘80s. Pay any price- it’s worth it.

-Josh Rutledge

Friday, July 16, 2010

Rhino Bucket - The Hardest Town (Acetate, 2009)

Do any of my Virginian friends remember when Food Lion sold record albums? The year was 1983, the store was the location on Tyre Neck Road in Portsmouth and the child ready to make a purchase was a curly-haired ignoramus of 11 years. I had saved nearly 1200 pennies' worth of allowance in order to trade Abe Lincoln's facial representation for a more colorful portrait. Would the tall 'n' bearded one be swapped with a baby smoking cigarettes on Van Halen's 1984 cover pose? Would our 16th prez be replaced in the history books by a hot rod adorning the face plate of ZZ Top's Eliminator? Would the light on the Gettysburg Address be dimmed by Angus Young's electrical test on AC/DC's Flick Of The Switch visual? I'd love to lie and claim one of the aforementioned LPs as the first slab of vinyl bought with my own money. Pulling honesty out of Abraham's top hat, however, I walked out of Food Lion that day clutching Culture Club's Colour By Numbers under my arm. An embarrassing first choice for the milk crate? Maybe, but at least it wasn't a goddamn Wham! album. That offense would've necessitated an ear bite from Mike Tyson's chompers.

Air-drumming into another generation, my 11-year-old nephew Nolan hasn't experienced any hangovers from listening to tween po(o)p such as The Jonas Brothers (did they really play a free show outside MacArthur Center before becoming famous?) and Justin Bieber (John Mayer is JB all growed up). Thanks to the influences of his uncle (takes a bow!) and soundtrack selections from various PlayStation 3 video games, the not-so-small dude rocks out to Aerosmith, KISS, Ramones, Motorhead, Twisted Sister, etc. The band Nolan favors the most? AC/DC. Though my neph digs their entire output from High Voltage to Black Ice, he prefers the early works with Bon Scott on the mic. Favorite album? Highway To Hell. Favorite song? "Beating Around The Bush". Awesome picks, Noles! No wonder you're a straight-A(C/DC) student! Gradually, I'll introduce him to artists who've used Acca Dacca as a blueprint (Rose Tattoo, The Four Horsemen, Jackal, Airbourne, etc.), but the latest effort from 20-year worshippers at the Church of Bon in Van Nuys, CA needed an immediate reading of its scriptures.

Rhino Bucket's 1990 self-titled debut on Reprise Records rang the bells for those who'd tried to prevent Bon Scott's final ride on Hell's Highway a decade earlier. Georg Dolivo (vocals/guitar), Greg Fields (lead guitar), Reeve Downes (bass) and Liam Jason (drums) did their damnedest in siphoning gasoline from the golden throat's Cadillac. Tunes like "One Night Stand," "Train Ride" and "Ride The Rhino" were unapologetic in their toasts to the whiskey-coated voice and signature groove that'd filled AC/DC's pre-Back In Black shot glasses. 1993 saw the departure of Liam Jason (who'd later have gender-reassignment surgery and briefly rejoin the band as a woman -- now THAT'S AC/DC!!!) and the arrival of one-time Acca Dacca snare-smasher Simon Wright. After an extended hiatus from 1996-2001, RB returned with Brian Forsythe from Kix taking over the duties on lead guitar. Appearances on several movie soundtracks (including "The Wrestler") and a slot on the Rocklahoma festival helped the band regain a foothold in an L.A. rock scene that'd changed considerably since the heyday of Riki Rachtman and "Headbangers Ball."

RB's 2001 core lineup returns to The Hardest Town with the unchanged ambition of recording a proper follow-up to Highway To Hell. Make no mistake, Brian Johnson has done an incredible job fronting AC/DC over the past 30 years and been a part of some great moments in the band's history. I must admit, though, to spinning THT way more often than the otherwise-fine Black Ice. Had Bon Scott lived to drink another fifth, RB's latest would've been on the shelves as a Wal-Mart exclusive. When Georg intones, "I'm looking for money/I'm living in dirt/Something for nothing/'Cause that's all it's worth" on the title cut, an emphatic door greeter, a shifty manager and a sly smiley face grant the problem child permission to five-finger Acca Dacca's Backtracks collection. With the economic problems and other riff raff, these three Wally World workers realize it ain't no fun waiting 'round to be a millionaire. Rosie behind the register isn't a squealer, so the touch of her lips turns out to be love at first feel. However, you suspect Jack from automotive is doing the bad boy boogie with your not-so-little lover ("Every time you come over/There's a weird vibe/I see you looking at my woman and I wonder/What happened last night"). It takes big balls to fool around with another man's lady, so why doesn't your "Dog Don't Bite" Jack's live wire? Being a jilted rock 'n' roll singer who was shot down in flames by a woman can make one forget his identity as a love hungry man. Simply go down the aisle stocked with Krylon and take your cans to the biggest Wal-Mart in Sin City. Once your tagging is finished ("I got a mind/It's on the wall/Big block letters/Ten feet tall"), Rosie's cute 'n' cuddly friend in gardening will "Know My Name." Feeling the down payment blues on a deposit for a place to house you and the horticultural honey, Jack gives your squeeze a ride on his Vespa. Damn, kicked in the teeth again? Here's the message you want passed from "Street To Street": "I'm a bad motherfuckin' man, if you take what's mine/If you mess with my woman and child, it's your suicide." What's next to the moon is a star called loneliness. If that's a light heading to heaven, then hell ain't a bad place to be. Because "You're Gone" ("All I ever wanted was for you to be mine"), a permanent "Gone shootin'." sign hangs on the front door.

Back to Wal-Mart for a bullet to bite on...

-Gunther 8544